1. Opinion

Column: Health agency's flaws hurt the hearing-impaired

Published Apr. 7, 2014

As a physician who has devoted significant time to traveling the world recently on a volunteer mission to help people with hearing impairments, I have a new sense of the significance of World Health Day, which was celebrated Monday. I also have a new sense of the limitations of the organization associated with this day: the World Health Organization.

Since November, I have visited five developing countries as a volunteer physician with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, a pragmatic, results-based organization committed to fitting 1 million hearing-impaired people with hearing aids worldwide. My travels have taken me to the Philippines, Haiti, Senegal, Liberia and Mexico.

Founded in 1984 by William and Tani Austin, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has given the gift of hearing, and changed lives, for more than 1 million children and adults over these past 30 years.

Seeing the excited smiles of children who are hearing their mother's voice for the first time has been incredibly satisfying, but it has also been terribly frustrating. Growing up the son of an immigrant and a pharmaceutical research scientist, I have always had a passion for finding cures for diseases in the developing world. During my travels, I've come to recognize that a significant share of the hearing loss in these countries is entirely preventable.

First, many of the ototoxic medicines that are used to treat infections in developing nations have been banned in United States. These medications, such as streptomycin, have been proven to cause hearing loss, yet WHO does not strongly advocate banning their use internationally.

Separately, WHO and other Western funders trumpet success in dispensing vaccines. Yet thousands of children are born deaf each year because their mothers were never vaccinated for rubella, also known as German measles. Their hearing loss is completely preventable.

WHO stopped recommending quinine as a first line of defense against malaria in 2006. So why is it still so widely prescribed? What's more, why aren't health officials in developing nations receiving any training on proper dosage? When a small child is given an adult dose of quinine, that child will sustain lasting hearing damage. Again, hearing loss that is preventable.

A group as well-connected and well-funded as WHO should make a huge difference in people's health all over the world. Instead, it's mostly glitz with limited action. The organization has been around since 1948, so they've had plenty of time to get their act together.

In 2012, WHO received $110 million from the United States alone, and another $157 million in combined funding from Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. With something like 8,500 employees in 147 countries, WHO has the resources to make a bigger difference on the ground. So why doesn't it?

A good contrast to WHO is the Clinton Global Initiative, which focuses on working with groups that get results. The Gates Foundation is another organization that backs up its investment with action, including finding innovative ways to use technology to map and respond to high-risk areas.

It's time for WHO to design better curricula to train medical professionals in developing nations. They need to create a pipeline to make sure that information on drug dangers is disseminated to the people who need it most. WHO should have people working on localized, grass-roots projects with proven results, like Last Mile Health in Liberia. The organization needs to be streamlined so that it can react more quickly and nimbly to the many health crises facing the people across our planet.

I've been humbled and honored to help to mitigate hearing loss through the Starkey Hearing Foundation. But as we observe World Health Day, we need to ask why the World Health Organization isn't doing more to shrink the demand for missions like the ones that keep Starkey volunteers so busy.

Dr. Robert Dean is an internist with a clinical practice in Palm Harbor. His interest in medicine and the developing world has led to several humanitarian travel missions, most recently with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.